Please visit the new home of Majikthise at bigthink.com/blogs/focal-point.

« Occupational exposure | Main | Bird flu »

January 24, 2005

Summers II: The Vengance

Predictably, the Lawrence Summers controversy has metastasized. A few people had the temerity to complain when the President of Harvard University aired unsupported, self-serving, inflammatory speculations about the "innate" quantitative abilities of women in general, and by extension his staff, students, and colleagues.

Now, the backlash is in full swing. Cf.William Saletan's latest opinion piece Don't Worry Your Little Head: The pseudo-feminist show trial of Larry Summers. (Saletan is obviously delighted to have a topical excuse to remark that women are more genetically different than men than humans are from great apes.) In the interest of balance, The New York Times has dragged Charles Murray out of cold storage to defend the substance of Summers' view.

Scott Lemieux and Robert Farley have excellent posts about the Summers fracas.

So far, little has been said about Summers' simplistic view of innateness. Briefly, there is some evidence for cognitive differences between men and women. However, even if these differences are sex-linked and highly heritable, it does not follow that women are innately inferior. Summers would probably agree that an innate aptitude is a disposition to acquire certain skills or knowledge from certain kinds of environmental inputs. (He is not, after all, advocating a doctrine of innate ideas with regard to mathematics and physics.) People whom we consider to be naturally adept at mathematics or physics are those who pick up the relevant concepts readily when they are instructed in the usual ways.

Even if the biologically-based sex differences in cognition are as pronounced as Saletan and Summers seem to think, it does not follow that women have less potential to acquire mathematical concepts than such. If there is a problem over and above discrimination, it may be that our teaching and testing methods have been developed largely by and for male minds. Teaching methods are technologies that have evolved over time, often without much conscious thought or planning. Over the centuries, certain styles have proven efficient for transferring the maximum amount of quantitative knowledge to the maximum number of students. It so happens that for most of the history of science, the students and teachers have been men. I'm not implying that women can't hack it in the current system. I'm just suggesting that relatively subtle biases may have been inadvertently introduced over the years, and that there may be room to improve our instructional methods. It is possible that what seemed like the best overall strategies for teaching turned out to subtly geared towards the strengths and weakness of characteristically male cognitive styles. I'm talking about really basic things like the order in which concepts are explained, popular metaphors, the sorts of intuitions that explanations appeal to, and the recommended problem-solving strategies (verbally vs. visually, deductively vs. inductively, etc.).

The advancement of science teaching is inseparable from the advancement of science itself. After all, the scientific enterprise depends upon the efficient transfer of information within the scientific community, including the instruction of the next generation of scientists.

I am not offering any radical feminist critiques or making any special pleas for dubious "women's ways of knowing." I'm just pointing out that it is an ideologically loaded assumption that a performance gap between men and women reflects intrinsic gender inferiority, as opposed to the limitations of our current teaching methods. For example, suppose that the ability to mentally rotate complex objects is vital to mathematical reasoning. If so, perhaps our math curricula should include explicit instruction designed to improve mental rotation skills. Or perhaps the answer is to teach other heuristics for solving mathematical problems that can be exploited by people with different cognitive styles.

Conservative social critic Christina Hoff Sommers makes a similar argument on behalf of boys. She contends that the current educational system favors girls because, to put it bluntly, girls are more disposed to sit down and shut up. On her view, boys are penalized by an education system which has increasingly little time for physical exercise and limited patience with rough and tumble play. I don't know whether Sommers' hypothesis is correct. However, I agree with her approach to the achievement gap between boys and girls in elementary and secondary school. Sommers doesn't argue that boys are "naturally inferior" to girls in academic pursuits, even though she believes that biology contributes girls' disposition to sit still. Instead, she argues that the problem lies with a curriculum that fails to accommodate the learning styles of male students.

Progressives should welcome research on sex differences in cognition. What we must reject are the unspoken negative value judgments implicit in remarks like those of Larry Summers.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
https://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c61e653ef00d83440d2a553ef

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Summers II: The Vengance :

Comments

I think this was actually in the Chronicle (not the hardest-hitting news source), but someone they quoted made the really good point that in the last X number of years (I forget, 50?) there had been a significant increase in the participation of women in math/sciences, and there hadn't exactly been any significant evolutionary differences in women's brains developing in that period of time, which was as good an argument as any that I've seen for the importance of education (and related social factors) rather than innate abilities.

It's worth saying over and over again: sure, there may be some innate cognitive differences between men and women. But anyone with their eyes open can see that, if the question is the representation of the sexes among working scientists, such differences constitute a completely negligible factor compared to the powerful systematic biases that are working against women. Everyone is talking earnestly about the noise, and ignoring the signal. And, sadly, a generation of little girls will have nagging doubts about whether they're quite up to it.

"someone they quoted made the really good point that in the last X number of years (I forget, 50?) there had been a significant increase in the participation of women in math/sciences, and there hadn't exactly been any significant evolutionary differences in women's brains developing in that period of time"

This source has some good graphs 'n' stuff about that topic:

http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/wominphys.pdf

women are more genetically different than men than humans are from great apes

Nonsense.

Your point about innateness is an excellent one. I tried to make it earlier, and all of the Summers supportes who responded ignored it.

I wonder what Summers would think about the fact that the gap between male and female SAT-M test scores has been decreasing over the last 30 years. Have females evolved better mathematical skills in 30 years time?

After observing m/f twins firsthand the differences are pretty astounding. It's hardly controled conditions,but we shall see where it leads, in math abilities. No bias allowed here. The F is cognatively advanced, the M though smaller [slightly] is physically superior:balance,hands,quickness,coordination.

Summmers shouldn't be horse-whipped, even if you had a horse. I accept his explanations.

Lindsay, your contribution is far too intelligent to be taken seriously in the current climate.

As anyone who has peeked at a comment thread on this subject in the past week will tell you, Larry Summers isn't the point, innate gender differences aren't the point, and the underrepresentation of women in science faculties is most definitely not the point.

The point, rather, is that "liberals" want to snuff out scientific inquiry of any subject that threatens their ideological a prioris, and the current proper position for all right-thinking folk is something along the lines of "OK, maybe Summers is a pig, but what's really important is that those awful liberals are out of control!" To borrow Sean's metaphor above, the noise has become the signal, and vice versa.

Remember the new orthodoxy: Conservatives may do horrible things, but liberals are horrible people. If you need further elucidation of this mindset, just read anything Saletan and his buddies at Slate have ever written.

Lindsay,

I'm not sure anything you said contradicts what Summers appears to have said (I say "appears" because we don't have a transcript). Summers did not say women were inferior to men, mentally or in any other way. Summers should get some credit for the fact that, at the World Bank, he showed that primary education for girls was *the* investment in the developing world with the highest benefit/cost ratio.

Summers was trying to answer the question, "Why are women more underrepresented in physics or mechanical engineering than in law or medicine?" Part of the answer is undoubtedly discrimination, overt and systemic. However, fifty years ago, discrimination against women in law and medicine was as great as in physics or analytic philosophy. If the latter are worse today, this is more consequence than cause of underrepresentation (although there is undoubtedly a vicious circle effect).

Summers correctly pointed out that women with children are less willing to put in unreasonable hours than men with children. The sensible feminist response to this fact is not to deny it or its effect on the representation of women in high-powered professions, but to propose changes in male and institutional behaviour that will make this less of a factor.

Summers also said that there is some research suggesting greater male variance in mathematical ability, which would lead to overrepresentation of men at the top end. This isn't proven definitively, and Summers never said it was. He just said the matter should be researched.

Aptitude isn't the only issue. There may also be innate differences in interest (to forestall trolls, these differences are statistical and do not apply in every individual case). Women are more highly represented in highly mathematical fields of biology and chemistry than in physics or abstract topology.

Anyway, it isn't really fair to Summers to blast him for "unspoken" negative value judgments. He's not a shrinking violet: maybe he didn't speak these judgments because he doesn't believe them.

Gareth, the point here is that Summers isn't presenting a psychology paper, he's speaking as the president of Harvard and what he says clearly has implications for Harvard's policies.

Speaking purely in the abstract, it's correct to say that the statistical underrepresentation of women in math and physics may well have some basis in genetic gender differences, and that the lack of perfect gender parity in a field is not in and of itself evidence of systematic discrimination. (This point is also blindingly obvious, which is why many felt Summers was being incredibly patronizing.)

But given that no one disputes that women in academia have been discriminated against in the past, and that the current gender disparities in math and science cannot be explained away by genetic gender differences alone, when the President of Harvard brings up genetic differences in this context, it's because he's trying to let himself off the hook for not doing more to improve academic opportunities for women in math and physics at Harvard.

Context is everything.

But Thad, Summers said he was talking as a social scientist, and not as the President of Harvard. And if it is so blindingly obvious that biological differences may explain some of the differences in representation of women in different disciplines, why did Summers' remarks cause the ruckus they did?

No one disputes (or at least Summers doesn't dispute) that women are discriminated against in male-dominated disciplines now, not just in the past. But we don't know how much of the difference in representation is caused by discrimination, how much by events earlier in the educational process (including high school), how much by work/family demands and how much by innate preferences and aptitudes. Summers just called for research on these issues: he didn't even say there are innate differences, and he got slaughtered, despite his widely cited work at the World Bank. This shows we are dealing with a taboo.

Gareth, if Summers were a neuroscientist, a geneticist, or a psychometrician, I would agree. However, he's none of the above. He's an economist and the president of the most prestigious university in America. I thought http://www.michaelberube.com/index.php/weblog/women_barred_from_harvard_presidency_by_genetic_predisposition_study_finds/>Michael Berube hit exactly the right note with his Summers parody. It's not that these issues shouldn't be talked about. It's that you should only weigh in on these weighty topics if you know what the hell you're talking about, especially if you're speaking from a position of immense institutional authority. To say that Summers wasn't speaking as the president of Harvard is absurd. It would be like Condoleeza Rice saying that she was speaking only as a political scientist when she told the media that Iraq had WMDs.

Summers is a distinguished economist, and, for all I know, a good administrator. You'll notice that his economic arguments scarcely attracted any controversy--despite the fact that the upshot was the same as that of his biological conjectures. Summers has expertise and data to back up his economic arguments, whereas he has only his prestige to back up his flimsy conjectures about gender differences. Most people wouldn't dare float such hypotheses unless they had a lot of evidence and expertise. In effect, Summers was grandstanding and abusing his academic and institutional authority.

But Thad, Summers said he was talking as a social scientist, and not as the President of Harvard.

Saying don't make it so.

And if it is so blindingly obvious that biological differences may explain some of the differences in representation of women in different disciplines, why did Summers' remarks cause the ruckus they did?

Because of the policy implications. These issues aren't being raised in a vacuum. Again, Summers was pretty clearly trying to let himself off the hook, saying, in effect, "Yes, women in math and physics are under-represented at Harvard, but since factors beyond my control (biology, economics) might possibly explain some of the disparity better than factors under my control (Harvard's hiring practices and institutional climate), I don't actually plan to do anything about the problem. So there."

Summers just called for research on these issues

Gareth, I think you are being astoudningly naive. Summers had been criticized for his poor record in fighting gender discrimination at Harvard, and this was his response. He wasn't "calling for research on these issues" (which has already been going on for decades), he was making excuses.

Oops. Fixing italics.

These days we seem to consider it fair game to express the foulest of beliefs and justify it as the natural challenge against liberal pieties. Shit is shit and offensive smelling to boot. Dressing shit up in intellectual discourse doesn't improve it.

Since it's the empiricists who feel the need to police the herd and to make unsubstantiated empirical claims its only fair to ask all these fuckers to put up or shut the fuck up. And if they're generalizing far beyond what their data can support then they ought to be individually shamed before their peers for indulging in the very mortal sins they typically project onto their ideological opponents.

Pinker's a fucking hack who's adept at making arguments for which he can't muster much support. But the data or lack thereof is far less important than making the argument. And legions of people educated far beyond their intelligence then pick-up the challenge and debate the thing to death.

And if they're generalizing far beyond what their data can support then they ought to be individually shamed before their peers for indulging in the very mortal sins they typically project onto their ideological opponents.

I challenge anyone here to go and find what Summers said. There is no transcript. His later remarks, in response to the controversy, make it clear that he intended to introduce the biological argument as one of a number of factors. He did not comment on its relative significance, so far as I am aware, despite many contentions here, and elsewhere, to the contrary.

This undemocratic "he's just an economist" bullshit is particularly detestable given the blogosphere's eager willingness to opine on the extent of the cognitive differences under discussion. I've got a mere bachelor's degree in cognitive science with a focus in neuroscience, but even I can tell that many of the participants in this righteous indignation are less than ideally qualified to comment. So please, don't spout these nonsensical demands that Summers keep his mouth shut. Debate is good.

I want to see more women in science and I have no doubt that eliminating discrimination is vastly more relevant to achieving that goal than the slight differences in biology. But the amount of mischaracterization, misinformation and hypocrisy I've seen from my right-minded friends is dismaying.

Hi i was wondering if you could help me. I'm doing a research paper on the discrimination against women in engineering and was wondering if you could help me. Thanks.

The comments to this entry are closed.